How CAN Takes a Different Approach

At Contemporary Analysis (CAN), we take a completely new approach to helping companies and organizations get more out of the information they have access to. At our core is the idea that businesses should be working smart and hard.  At CAN, we are different because we always keep the human element, actionable impact, and added value at the forefront of our development process.

We start the entire process with keeping the human element in mind. Everyone has gone through the frustrating process of being passed off from one person (if you’re lucky enough to reach a real human) to the next throughout a customer service or sales process. In most of these situations, half the time speaking with a new person is catching him or her up on things you have already said to other members of their organization.
At CAN, we understand the importance of having one contact throughout the entire process. This contact, known as a Navigator, takes the time to understand your specific business and helps you distill problems with big impact solutions. Navigators understand the majority of managers and executives don’t have the time to learn about predictive analytics. Navigators take the time and effort to understand the problem or issue from the end user’s point of view and then strategize to reverse engineer an efficient solution. It is our job to couple your expert knowledge and historical data to give you a solution with impact.
At CAN, we understand businesses outsource services for added value. The value of using predictive analytics is only as great as the actions and changes made with the information provided. You could have a GPS system in your car, but if you never turn it on, it doesn’t do you any good. From step one in our customer process, we work on finding helpful insights into areas in which you can TAKE ACTION or MAKE CHANGE, not just look at the report and think “Hmm, that’s interesting.” If the information we provide doesn’t induce change on at least some level, we didn’t properly do our job.
At CAN, the solutions we provide make sense financially. We use predictive analytics to answer questions in about 30 days. Think about that for a second. In just 30 days you could have an analytical model which, while not being perfect, will allow you to make much more informed decisions. Whether it’s having a better understanding of up-sell, cross-sell, or customer loyalty. It is important to remember, the goal of predictive analytics is to be LESS WRONG, and models continually become less wrong by using current information to test and re-test.
Compare 30 days with CAN to the alternatives – doing nothing or creating an in-house predictive analytics department. In smaller companies, the alternative to CAN is to do nothing. Smaller companies don’t have the resources to create in-house predictive analytics, but have a lot of the same issues as large companies.
The other alternative is in-house analytics. I believe in-house predictive analytics departments are something every large company should invest in. Properly managed and financed in-house departments can change organizations in ways never thought possible, in ways which only the future will show us. No longer would justifications for decisions be based on gut instinct, or worse yet, “because that’s how we’ve always done it.” This business is your passion, and nothing proves a point faster than quantitative justification. However, what if you’re not a large company?
In-house departments require management, direction, and resources. A company looking to develop the smallest possible in-house predictive analytics department will pay for the following:

  • Find and hire a highly sought after Ph.D. or Masters at a cost of 75-150k.
    • Add half the salary again for employee benefits, taxes (FIFA, FICA, etc.), office space, physical equipment, and HR resources.
  • Purchase a Tableau, SAS, or SPSS license costing 10’s of thousands of dollars for just one year

This cost of 175-250k is just the initial investment. You haven’t solved one problem yet. Taking into account the months of required training and corporate acclimation before any useful insights can be made by this new hire, it can be 12 to 18 months before you have a solution to just one of your smallest problems. 30 days and a cost of at least a zero less sounds much better to me.
Like I said before, I would encourage all large companies to take the plunge into predictive analytics. Even with well developed predictive analytics solutions there is a high possibility the department would suffer the same downfall as some IT departments, the disconnect between who designs or provides the technical knowledge and who actually uses it on a day to day basis.
At CAN, we take your expert knowledge and use your data to provide valuable insights you never thought possible. Throughout the entire process, we never lose track of the importance of the human element. Whether you’re a large company with an in-house analytics department or smaller business with no means for self analysis, we care about your business and can give you value in the form of information from which actions can be taken.

6 Questions Salespeople Need to Ask Themselves

If you are a salesperson, you spend your days asking other people questions. However, there are 6 questions salespeople need to ask themselves. These questions will help you sell to people that are ready to purchase, sell from a position of power, and improve your client relationships. (more…)

What We Look for When Hiring People

When hiring new people, we primarily look for four things; People that just build things, use learning as a tool, pursue the truth and are passionate about our vision.
First, it is important that they just build things. We don’t care about people that love to build things. Everyone on our team just builds things. They get an idea for a product, process, business or experience, and they just build it. We are very interested to know what people have built and why. We are looking for their ability to identify a need, scope the solution, and organize the resources necessary to develop the solution. We expect every CAN employee to be an executive, because they are expected to make decisions everyday that impact the future of the organization.
Second, they must use learning as a tool. We don’t care about people who love learning. At CAN the ability to learn almost anything is essential to success. When we get a new client or encounter a new problem, we figure out what needs to be done, learn how to do it, and then do it. Working at CAN would be very frustrating for someone that uses knowledge as a tool. We don’t pay people for what they know, we pay people for what they can learn.
Third, they must pursue the truth. We need people that not only pursue that truth, but embrace it without hiding from uncomfortable facts. Our clients pay us to change their organizations to help them work smarter. Often, CAN’s research uncovers uncomfortable truths about our client’s business, and it is our job to expose that truth. More often than not this is very uncomfortable, and our people must be able to confront these truths while operating with an executive level of consideration.
Fourth, they need to be passionate about our vision. CAN’s vision is to develop simple systems to help all companies work smart.  We do not need technicians that are in love with technology. We need people that see technology as a tool, and are passionate about building simple tools that everyone can use. Also, we need people that are passionate about business.
These criteria apply to every position, and are internal to the culture of CAN.  Having clearing defined what we look for when hiring people allows us to hire people based on their alignment to our culture, instead of their specific skills or education.  While this makes finding the right people very difficult, it has created an environment that is rife with creativity and original ideas.  Everyone is pursuing the same goals with same culture and different skills, experiences and education.
CAN is not for everyone, but we don’t need everyone.

Inspect What You Expect

Inspect What You Expect
Several weeks ago I had a meeting with Raz Zehnacker. Raz is the former President of First Data. We met to talk about things I needed to be aware of as CAN grows, because according to Jim Collins “most companies don’t die of starvation but of indigestion”. Some of the best advice he gave me was to “Inspect What You Expect”.
Raz explained that as a leader you need inspect what you expect. During his time at First Data he used audits to make sure that he could stand by his promises, and that he could coach and grow his team. He used audits to encourage a culture of fixing things before they were delivered, instead of making excuses after it was too late.
I have been practicing Raz’s advice to “Inspect What You Expect”. At the beginning and end of each day I ask myself, “What do I expectt my team to accomplish?” I use the answers to inform my communication with them. I start by collecting as much information as possible, such as timelines, budgets and issues. I want to be able to ask the right questions to make sure that my team has thought through the project, that they have all the resources they need to overcome any issues to deliver on time, and learn how I can help them.
Inspecting what you expect can be uncomfortable, especially if someone has something to hide or they feel as if they are going to be judged.  If they have something to hide, then it is essential that you inspect what is going on.  However, it is also important that you communicate that you are not trying to judge, but that you want to help them. If your team is uncomfortable, it can be very tempting to leave them alone. In the end you as the leader are response.  You need to make sure that you inspect what you expect so that you can stand by your promises.

Why I work at Contemporary Analysis

I get asked why in the prime of my career I went back to working for a startup company, run by young talent, in a field on the cutting edge of analytics.  It was because, for the first time, I felt like an owner had a vision I could get behind.  He wanted to be something better, do something different, and wanted me to help him create something magnificent.  I saw it as a unique opportunity because, for the first time, I found a true entrepreneur.
Most people define anyone that starts a business as an entrepreneur, which is actually not accurate.  That definition is the definition of a business owner.  An entrepreneur is a mindset, a way you do business and how you look at problems.  I knew Grant, the CEO of Contemporary Analysis, was different when he told me he was going to turn down being bought by 2 different companies. That alone puts you in a different class.  Most owners would sell if they ever got the chance.  In fact, Grant has no intention selling off or IPO’ing his  juggernaut of a company.  In fact, he wants to be a privately owned Fortune 500 company headquartered in Omaha, NE.  Grant not only is an entrepreneur, but he has vision.  And big vision at that.
People have told us that we can’t do it, and yet, we keep doing it.  We will easily have over $3 million in revenue for 2012, double that of last year and 10x’s that of 3 years ago, and already have contracts with 2 of the Fortune 500’s in our hometown.  We are hiring, building out, releasing new products, and thinking about how to do business better.  I have worked at a couple of startups in my life, but this is the first that does that kind of reflection and planning.  Our goal is to not only grow, but grow in a way that is sustainable and scalable by taking the time and energy to do things right the first time.  We want to build our products, people, systems and processes so they last, instead of being obsolete the next year.  While this requires extra time to research, tinker and think about what the future will look like, this philosophy allows CAN to grow without having to look back.  I wanted to be part of a company that has that kind of philosophy.
This philosophy has appealed to me.  I used to think I needed all the answers before I could recommend change.  Through the books Grant, he wants us to grow as humans and executives, has given me to read, I realized that I didn’t need all the answers before tackling a problem.  In fact, our whole company is based on the fact the answers that are out there are not the best way any more.  We have to invent new ways to stay ahead of competition or risk being a follower.  That understanding changed what I defined an entrepreneur as.  No longer did I see it as someone who likes risk, who lives on the stress created by it, and who loves the idea that while he or she may fail, the reward for winning is enormous.  Instead, I began to see an entrepreneur as someone who isn’t willing to accept things as they are as the best way.  In the hands of a true entrepreneur business is the best platform to change the world.
My philosophy also changed how I viewed risk and how I found that entrepreneurs viewed risk.
In the book Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, Harvard Business Professor Howard Stevenson defines entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”  From working with Grant, I know that this is true.  He has the unique ability to take action that require using resources that he doesn’t have and sometimes that don’t even exist.  For example, he founded Contemporary Analysis in 2008 well before you could even Google “big data”, “data science” or “predictive analytics”.
Also in the same book, Jon Burgstone, summarizes a true entrepreneur’s ideology:

Every time you want to make any important decision, there are two possible courses of action. You can look at the array of choices that present themselves, pick the best available option and try to make it fit. Or, you can do what the true entrepreneur does: Figure out the best conceivable option and then make it available.

This is what makes Contemporary Analysis great, our leader does not look to see what choices are available, instead he looks for the option that would be best for the business, and then goes and finds out how to make that option available.  This takes leadership that is empowered, and empowers everyone they work with to question why everyone has always done everything.
For example, we go directly to buyers and  talk only to people who have the need,willingness, and resources to buy what we sell.  Also, we research every decision we make from chairs and desks to computers and phone systems.  We find the system that makes sense to us and then find the vendor who sells it.  We certainly don’t wait for cold calls, don’t put up with bad customer service, or buy from poorly trained sales people.  We do things differently.
I am excited to work here.  I have no pedigree of how things have been done for years to try and get out from under.  I have the freedom to help my clients answer the questions that they have been struggling to answer for years, and help them make better decisions on how to make their businesses succeed.  At CAN I am not limited by the technology or resources available, but empowered by the mandate to help every client work smart.
One more quote from Professor Stevenson:

When you don’t have the cash to boss people around, like in a corporation, you have to create a more horizontal organization. “You hire people who want what you have and not what you don’t have.”  In other words, entrepreneurs offer their team members a larger share of a vision for a future payoff, rather than a smaller share of the meager resources at hand. Opportunity is the only real resource you have.

And this place is one of the best opportunities to make a difference in the world I have ever seen.
That’s why I work here.

Dashboard Design: Teaching Strategic and Analytical Thinking

At CAN, we exist to provide our clients with leading edge methodologies that are both effective and easy to use.  This requires that we constantly learn about new tools and techniques, and hone a fine edge on the ones we keep to provide to our clients.

Previously on our blog, we have discussed the application of dashboards and aspects of dashboard design that facilitate rapid perception by the human brain.  How about using dashboards as a way to teach users a way of thinking?  In this blog, we will discuss using dashboards to promote strategic thinking through guided analysis.
One of our clients approached CAN with the following predicament.  Their enterprise operates nationwide with several districts responsible for operations within their unique geographic region.  Every year, the strategic planning division would produce a thick binder reviewing each districts market forecasts, opportunities, and past performance.  The intent was to assist the non-technical managers and business development of each district to think about trends in the market and industry to get more sales.  Although very well produced and full of useful information, these binders acted mostly as a reference and did little to encourage analysis by the end-user.
Our solution was to use the same information used to build the binders and create views using Tableau.  At first, these views replicated the familiar visualizations found in binders with an added level of interaction.  Then, we started to add new data sources into the existing information.  We connected industry forecasts, census data, economic indicators, past performance and connected all this functionality to a dashboard where the end user is able to bring in these factors at their command.  Populating the dashboard with the raw materials required for analysis, is the first stage.
The second stage is defining the business questions that the users need to answer to run their business.  We interviewed the executives on the strategic planning team and in several of the district offices to define what the most important business questions they needed to answer to run their business.  Instead of providing managers of each district with binders that pushed facts and figures at them, we created a work book of questions that needed to be answered and how the answers could be applied to running their district.
The third stage is doing most, not all, of the users’ work for them.  What I mean by this is producing dashboards that are 90% completed for the types of questions the user will want to answer.  Our goal is to support the user in asking questions and getting answers, not simply handing them the answers or making them build their own dashboards.  So, we build pre-made views for them.  For example, one aspect of our client’s business functions was closely related to population growth.  We produced a dashboard that integrated population growth figures for the past several years with our client’s historical sales figures and billable hours.  The district manager, interested in staffing requirements, can population changes across the region with his current staffing and identify where adjustments and hiring are likely to take place.
In designing guided analysis, the bottom line is producing dashboards that solve the business question that users need to answer.  This requires that the designers understand the purpose of each dashboard, how it will be used, and what the user intends to get out of it.  If your goal is to achieve data-driven decisions from non-technical managers, you must design so that the user is on the right track with the controls, but ultimately require their interaction and thinking to reach the outcome.
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Make Employee Feedback Believable

Make Employee Feedback Believable

This post is part of a series of interviews with experts in business intelligence, sales management, marketing, customer retention, management and strategic planning.  Everyday, the CAN team interacts clients, mentors, and friends who are leaders in their fields, and we started this series to share their expertise.
Research shows that employees who focus on improving their strengths consistently out perform employees that focus on their weaknesses (Read a Related Post).  According to Gallup, employees that focus on developing their strengths are more productive and are 6 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and 3 times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life.  However, it is difficult, demanding, and often counterintuitive to think through who you are and what you do best. Studies on the reliability of performance ratings have repeatedly shown that people struggle to rate their own performance.  The most accurate performance ratings come from others. Given this, it shouldn’t be assumed that we truly know our strengths or weaknesses.
One of the simplest ways to encourage employees to identify and focus on developing their strengths is by creating a feedback loop that connects an employee’s behavior with the results of their actions.  According to Industrial-Organizational Psychologist  Josh Kuehler, when feedback is more detailed and frequent, it creates more self awareness; a primer for performance improvement.
However, employee feedback is most commonly offered as a response to events that are negative, rather than positive, in nature. In other words, it is easy to see the performance gaps and therefore easy to offer employee feedback when performance falls short of expectations. Negative employee feedback also has a tendency to be more frequent and detailed, when compared to positive feedback. When the performance problems occur, it is easy for others to see the specific actions to fix performance problems. It is more difficult to recognize the specific actions taken that led to a successful task or project.  According to Josh, this can be attributed to the fact that while employees are expected to do positive things, typical management is focused on correcting poor performance rather than praising good performance.
This type of employee feedback as a response to negative events creates a negative loop of interaction between managers and employees where the employees act to avoid punishment, instead of focusing on developing expertise in their positions. Management by exception is a poor model, yet is too common. To help balance negative and positive feedback, Josh recommends that managers make providing frequent and detailed feedback part of their management routine, rather than solely in response to negative events.  Josh is currently developing software that helps managers support the expertise of their team by making detailed and frequent feedback a part of their weekly routine.
Josh recommends that managers provide frequent and detailed feedback to their employees in a way that connects how an employee’s behavior produces specific results.  Instead of using feedback only for correcting negative behavior, managers should focus on developing and amplifying the excellence of their employees.  This requires that the managers act as a sensor and decision system, monitoring behavior and outcomes, and providing the employee with an understanding of how their actions contribute and create outcomes on a grand scale.

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